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Getting books as PDFs
Feb 14, 2014, 6:19a - Technology

Ever since I started in grad school, my reading consumption has changed significantly. Before, I would read physical books, usually non-fiction. In the past 7 years eBooks have grown in popularity, but I never really got into them. In fact, I've never bought a single eBook. I really like highlighting and leaving comments in the margins of my books, esp. with non-fiction. I'll forget what I read pretty quickly and the annotations make remembering what I thought much faster than rereading. Currently, there are some very good PDF readers that do annotations: I use Repligo Reader on my Android phone and FoxIt Reader on my Windows laptop. With eBooks, the software I've seen isn't as good for annotations. Since eBook formats are often proprietary, I'm tied to the vendor's software. PDF gives me the flexibility to switch software if I find a better reader out there.

With grad school, I started reading PDFs of my journal articles. Last year, I found some scientific books that were available as PDFs. Full-on books, in all their 400-page glory. It was awesome. I read one I really liked, and I realized that this is the future of my reading. Forget eBooks, I want all my books as I get my papers, as PDFs. I can keep them forever, they don't weigh me down as I move, and I can share them with friends without having to worry about arbitrary limits and rules that eBook vendors dictate. It's really my very own PDF.

A few months ago, I emailed Amazon suggesting they offer this feature: when I buy a book, give me a PDF as well. Pretty simple, at least from my point of view (but God-knows how complicated from the copyright point of view). They gave me some polite response, but so far I haven't seen this offered.

A few days ago, Becca told me that Better World Books has started doing this! It's all really quite clever, how they circumvent the work of striking special deals with the copyright owner. This is how it works: If they have a used book in stock, you can opt for what they call "eDelivery". When you buy the used book, they chop out the binding and scan all the pages, and send you the digitized PDF, replete with optical character recognition so the PDF if searchable. So they're actually offering a post-purchase service: once you take ownership of the used book, they chop it up on your behalf.

More details on eDelivery (aka PDF). An example book available as PDF: Hunger Games.

At the moment, I haven't found a way to filter my searches for books that are only available as PDFs. You can filter a search by "Used", and it may list eDelivery on the results list, but it doesn't seem to mean that they actually have eDelivery available. I've emailed them to see if there's a way to just filter books that are actually available as PDFs.

Becca did find a book and just bought it for $4 as a PDF. It takes a few hours for them to digitize it - hopefully it will look as good as we hope!

Somehow, this makes me very excited.

Read comments (3) - Comment

omar - Feb 14, 2014, 8:14a
I'm pretty sure you can convert ebooks to PDF using calibre, fyi

nikhil - Feb 14, 2014, 8:39a
Thanks Omar, hadn't seen that one.

One potential issue is I'm not sure how ebooks handle figures and graphics. For example, textbooks have lots of inline figures and a lot of work is spent on pagination, and I think I checked one once in ebook format and it looked quite foolish.

I don't think the conversion is straightforward. For example, if a physical book has multiple columns per page, but the ebook does not, how will calibre know to put it back into columns? Seems simpler to just get the PDF, and you benefit from all the work spent laying out the physical pages.

And what if the eBook has DRM? Calibre says it can't do anything about it.

So I just downloaded Calibre and converted the ebook that comes with it to PDF, and it looks terrible. The fonts are huge, since ebook fonts are huge. Overall, it doesn't seem to do a smart conversion to PDF, but more of a pixel-wise conversion. The whole app just seems focused on ebooks, not PDFs, so I don't think it will quite work.

omar - Feb 15, 2014, 9:56a
i need notifications of when you comment (when i've commented). anyway, i see what you're saying. seems this person likes pdfs too:

they recommend a tool other than calibre. maybe you want to try that out. the only reason i push this is because so much stuff is in ebook format now, and not pdf, so hopefully someone gets that conversion at least semi decent. also, doesn't repligo have a way to flow text.. i wonder if they flow and resize?

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